Two years ago historians marked the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Flu, a worldwide pandemic that seemed to be disappearing down the memory hole. Not so fast, said historians, we need to remember the horror. Happy belated anniversary, said 2020, hold my beer. And so here we are. As I write this, the President wheezed through an Address to the Nation which calmed no fears and sent Dow futures tumbling. I scrolled down my news feed to see that Tom Hanks and his wife both have it. Our god is an amoral one, and its noodly appendages touch all.
So let’s put our current moment into perspective with this 10+ minute history on the Spanish Flu from Cambridge University. Here are the numbers: it killed 20 million people according to contemporary accounts. Later scientists and historians revised that number to somewhere between 50 to 100 million.
“This virus killed more people in the first 25 weeks than HIV/AIDS has killed in 25 years,” says historian of medicine Dr. Mary Dobson. And unlike our current COVID-19 strain, this strain of flu went after 20 to 40 year olds with a vengeance. The symptoms were graphic and unpleasant–people drowning in their own phlegm, blood shooting out of noses and ears, people dropping down dead in the street.
Where did it start? Certainly not in Spain–it gained that nickname because the first cases were recorded in the Spanish press. One theory is that it started in Kansas and found its way overseas, from barracks to the frontlines. It might has come from birds or pigs, but scientists still don’t know how it jumps from species to species and how it quickly evolves within humans to infect each other.
Right now, it seems like COVID-19 can subside if countries can work quickly, like in China. But history has a warning too. As Europe and America celebrated Armistice Day at the end of the war, the flu seemed to be going away too. Instead it came roaring back in a second wave, deadlier than the first.
Some famous folks who got the virus but survived included movie stars Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford, right at the height of their fame; President Woodrow Wilson, who was so out of it (though recovering) that some historians blame the weaknesses in the Treaty of Versailles on him. Artist Edvard Munch contracted it (which seems fitting, considering his obsessions) and painted several self-portraits during his illness. Raymond Chandler, Walt Disney, Greta Garbo, Franz Kafka, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Katherine Anne Porter all survived.
Others weren’t so lucky: painter of sensuous, gold leaf paintings Gustav Klimt died from it, as did poet and proto-surrealist Guillaume Apollinaire, and artist Egon Schiele. (And so did Donald Trump’s grandpa).
The Spanish Flu never really went away. There were still cases in the ‘50s, but we humans evolved with it and it became a seasonal type of flu like many others. Flu viruses constantly evolve and mutate, and that’s why it is very difficult to create vaccines that can stop them.
If you’ve read this far, one last thing: GO WASH YOUR HANDS AND STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACE!
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.